Sonya Nevin

I.B. Tauris (2017) h/b 304pp £64.00 (ISBN 9781784532857)

The question of a military commander’s relationship with the sacred is as old as Greek literature itself. It informs the first scene of the Iliad, it fascinates tragedians, and it is at the heart of many episodes recorded by Greek historians. In this well-argued, thought-provoking book, the first in-depth study of its kind, N. undertakes a compelling examination not only of the nature of sacred space and how it was used or abused by military commanders, but of how Greek historians and biographers deliberately influenced their readers’ reactions to a character or event by including, omitting or manipulating material which showed a commander’s piety or transgression. ‘Whenever a military leader is depicted sacrificing, it is worth asking why that scene has been included; it is never simply because it happened.’

Beginning with a consideration of the nature of sacred space and sacred objects, N. goes on to focus on four main areas—the temple as fortress; talismans; ‘on the battlefield’; and taking asylum—before exploring the relationship between sacred and military imperatives, and concluding with an appraisal of wars fought in the late Archaic and Classical ages specifically for the control of the four panhellenic sanctuaries.

Throughout, the book benefits from N.’s close reading of the Greek historians, as well as of Plutarch and Pausanias, her scrupulous awareness of the moral bias underlying each, and a sound grasp of archaeological and epigraphical data, which fill crucial (and sometimes surprising) lacunae in the literary record. This is well illustrated by her case-studies, which include Herodotus on Miltiades at Paros (what did happen at the sanctuary of Demeter?), Thucydides on Brasidas at Torone (well contrasted with Athens’ Delium campaign), and Xenophon on Agesilaus at Aulis and elsewhere, an analysis which benefits from close comparisons of his account in his Hellenica and his encomium of the Spartan king. At the heart of the discussion lie questions of ownership: bones of heroes exhumed from foreign soil to be piously repatriated; statues snatched violently from sanctuaries with consequences haunting succeeding generations; victors asserting their supremacy (sometimes prematurely) by sacrificing at the altars of their vanquished foes. ‘The side confident of its ownership,’ N. concludes, ‘could act in a sanctuary in a way that would be unacceptable to an outsider.’

Liberally illustrated with quotations, all in English translation (but including the occasional term in Greek), this is a vital book for anyone with a knowledge of Greek history or an interest in religion and conflict studies, shedding important new light on a well-trodden field, and forcing a reappraisal of much of what seems familiar. It will make an important addition to the libraries of classicists and ancient historians alike.

David Stuttard

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